March 1, 2009
Although sustainability is a concern for most chefs and restaurant owners these days, they have enough problems without having to worry about saving the planet. Fine dining has quickly been pushed to the forefront by consumers as the sacrificial lamb of their family budget, yet their expectations for quality do not tend to ebb in parallel with the see-sawing economy. When a restaurant’s entire operation looks for ways to lower costs, the chef is still expected to be creative and produce dishes that keep customers coming back tomorrow and next week and next month – a difficult task when you’ve been asked to cut your sourcing budget. What a chef needs, therefore, is a product that satisfies their customers (the taste is exceptional) pleases the money guys (the cost is reasonable) and turns on that green light inside their heart (it’s sustainable and/or locally produced). While there are a handful of products that fulfill these requirements, many chefs are turning to a locally-raised fish called barramundi. Farmed by Australis Aquaculture in Turners Falls, a picturesque town in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, barramundi are not only raised with the environment in mind, but with an upscale chef’s picky customers in mind as well. At Blue Heron, an upscale and eclectic restaurant in nearby Sunderland, chef-owner Deborah Snow relates that while it’s great for something to be sustainable, unless the customer enjoys the taste the effort is wasted.
“Sustainability is very important to me, but the product also has to be really good,” Snow explains. “To me, Barramundi is a cross between red snapper and bass, sweet and not fishy, and it’s a very affordable dish for restaurants. It’s really the freshest fish you’re going to have anywhere, unless you catch it yourself.”
Chefs may not be losing sleep because of the fossil fuel that was expended flying in the fish or meat or vegetable products they use, but the rising discrepancies between the amount of fish the world consumes and the amount available in our freshwater and oceans has become a concern nearly as critical as global warming. The reason is that this issue threatens a global food source that humans have depended on for thousands of years. Fish farming was once seen as the panacea for this dilemma, but doubts were raised as major economic and environmental problems emerged. Many desirable fish species were just too difficult to farm without creating negative environmental impacts, or without relegating the location of these farms to third-world countries where poor working conditions and questionable quality control abound. Josh Goldman, founder of Australis Aquaculture, was a Tilapia and striped bass fish-farm owner during a period of time when the environmental and economic benefits of fish farms were initially viewed as the savior of wild fisheries.
“We all started looking at farmed fish ten or fifteen years ago,” Goldman says. “People were saying, ‘This is great, we have an answer to over fishing. We’re going to be able to bring new breeds to market and create a sustainable supply.’ Then all of the bad news about farming practices started to pour in, and everyone forgot the promise and just focused on the bad side of the story.”
Goldman’s first foray into fish farming in the 1990’s used a closed containment systems of his design (still in use today at Australis), which essentially negates the environmental impact on native fisheries. He founded Australis Aquaculture with Australian entrepreneur Stewart Graham in 2005 because they both recognized the trifecta of the beneficial qualities Barramundi possessed. Unlike most carnivorous fish, barramundi are diadromous, meaning they spawn in salt waters but spend their first few years in freshwater, and therefore their diet is flexible. They are disease resistant and fast-growing, taking only twelve months from fingerling to a commercially viable adult, resulting in reasonable production costs while eliminating the need for antiboitcs Most importantly, barramundi is a great tasting and healthy fish, with high omega-3 oils, a white flaky flesh and a beautiful skin that becomes crispy when cooked.
China “invented” fish farming several thousand years ago, with the first references belonging to Fan Li about 460 B.C., when river-fed man-made ponds were used to raise black carp. China now produces about 70% of the world’s farmed fish, even though American consumers are generally unaware of the origin of most of the fish they consume. But the primary disadvantage of China’s farms both environmentally and economically, as well as others across the globe, has become the requirement for enormous quanties of fish meal and fish oil.
“It’s hard to farm premium, carnivorous species without a lot of fish meal or without drugs being involved,” says Goldman. “Barramundi start their lives as a salt water fish and then grow up in fresh water, which confers a lot of advantages in terms of the feed ingredients they can eat. One of the problems with fish farming is that fundamentally, most farmed fish are like cats. You don’t feed your cat a lot of table scraps because cats basically need to eat protein - they don’t do well with carbohydrates, and carnivorous fish are like that. Carbohydrates are abundant and they are at a lower cost, whereas proteins are more expensive. So having a fish like a barramundi that can make use of a broader range of ingredients is a big advantage.”
Compared to barramundi, farmed fish such as salmon, tuna and trout require significantly more fish-based protein in their diets. In addition to requiring anywhere from three to eight pounds of feed fish to generate one pound of consumable fish, farmed salmon are also generally raised not in closed containment systems, but in large and densely stocked netpens that pollute surrounding waters with waste and chemicals if they are not carefully sited, creating a disaster for surrounding wild salmon populations. Farmed tuna’s ratio of fishmeal to product is a staggering 20 to 1 – it takes 20 pounds of live fish to generate one pound of consumable tuna. Although trout tend to consume considerable amounts of wild fish in their feed, recent scientific improvements have lowered their reliance on this dwindling natural resource. Fish oil itself may be the most un-sustainable product of all, and one that aquaculture entrepreneurs like Goldman are trying, with some success, to reduce or eliminate. Australis restricts their use of fish oil, for instance, to the very end of the growing process.
“It takes about ten pounds of wild fish to produce a single pound of fish oil,” explains Goldman, “while only about four pounds of wild fish go into a pound of fish meal. So fish oil is really the bad ingredient from a sustainability standpoint, and we minimize that until the last part of the growth cycle. That’s also important because fish oils are often the source of contamination, so by not using them for most of the feeding cycle, we have no detectable PCP, mercury, or organic pollutants.”
The barramundi farming process begins inside a converted greenhouse across the street from Australis’ main facility. Forty-three breeding fish imported from Australia are kept in deep tanks, each one weighing about twenty pounds. The company used to import fingerlings regularly from Australia, but decided in the past few years to develop their own in-house hatchery, a decision that was motivated as much by cost savings as it was to be localized and self-sustaining. Two out of the three of the Australia hatcheries that used to supply them with fingerlings were severely damaged by cyclones a few years ago, which pushed them even faster into self-sufficiency. While it took Australis a great deal of effort and ingenuity to be able to breed the fish in captivity, their efforts were eventually rewarded.
When the fingerlings are born, they are basically the size of a person’s eyelash. Barramundi fingerlings are extraordinarily cannibalistic so they will devour their tank mates unless they are separated by size every few days. A graduated series of 1,000 to 140,000 gallon re-circulating tanks are house within Australis’ 2-acre plant, and as the fry grow to a pre-determined size they are moved to a larger tank using a series of giant customized vacuum tubes. These tubes are designed to suck out only the fish that meet the exact size criteria in order to graduate to the next tank. It takes about a year for the eyelash-sized fingerlings to grow to 2-pounders, ready to be sent to the company’s distribution center in Boston.
Australis currently has no competition for fresh locally farmed barramundi in North America, partially due to the difficulty in setting up such a complex operation. Barramundi imported from the Indo-Pacific are often farmed in open “leaky” net pens or cages that carry very high risks of fish escapes, resulting in pollution and disease. While Australis continues to concentrate on the “tweaking” of their patented water purification process and customized feed products, one of their biggest challenges is to educate the public about the benefits of their product, which is why their ad campaigns use a tag line that proclaims “now you can feel good about eating fish again.”
“One of our goals is to change people’s view of farmed fish,” explains Goldman. “I think that is a big part of our message, that whole story of why we ought to take a second look at fish farming. I think that the aspect of somebody pioneering something that is new and really trying to get all the ingredients right, that is the other central part of the story.”
The exceptional taste that Australis achieves with their barramundi is as much a result of the final days of each fish’s life as it is their diet and clean environment. The tanks all utilize activated carbon ozone as a cleansing disinfectant, creating a high grade filtration system similar to what you might find in a bottled water plant. The system takes all of the compounds in the water and reduces them back down to purified water. But at the end of the process, the fish’s bodies are purified by another unusual process.
Chefs have remarked that barramundi from Australis lacks that certain muddiness that other fish often have, which is a testament to the final process that the adult fish endure, an experience not unlike attending a week-long fat farm. For six days the fish have their feed withheld so their guts become completely empty, effectively purifying their systems. This also results in a slight weight loss, which is a disadvantage if the selling price of each fish – which of course is based upon weight - is the fish farmer’s primary motive. But at Australis the primary motive is to achieve the best taste possible, with the lowest environmental impact.
For many chefs who do lose sleep over the sustainability of our food supply, and simultaneously care deeply about taste and pleasing customers, Australis barramundi seems to strike all the right chords. Michel Nischan is one such chef, and he’s a believer as well a customer.
“When you talk about sustainable food, there are ways to do things well and actually get something that tastes good,” Nischan says. “When you look at how quickly Barramundi grows and the small amount of input that it needs, and it has got that flavor to it. It’s like catfish - it’s got that yummy flavor and the skin gets crisp and it’s something that more people need to know about and celebrate. I think what they do is neat and I would love see more of that, where the aquaculture farm is directly linked to an agricultural component.”
Barramundi could very well be the perfect fish for chefs concerned with cost, taste, and sustainability, and could very well make them feel good about serving farmed fish again.